Talk about a change in tone!
I mean, here we are in the midst of another celebrative, praise filled service of worship here at East Church, we’ve just come off an incredibly successful mission outreach in this year’s CROP Walk; we’ve got all these great kids running around here and had a great time learning to “be strong and courageous,” and there’s a spirit of love and of laughter in this place that’s just palpable – it all feels very good and very uplifting, and it’s a great day …and then we open up the Bible, turn to the Gospels to see what “good news” Jesus might have to share with us this morning, and we’re confronted with this:
“If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea.”
OK, Jesus, a little harsh, maybe, especially on a day like this one; but that’s alright. It’s a reality check, right, Jesus? We need to hear things like this from time to time; if only to keep us humble and focused; we should keep our egos in check, after all. So thank you for that, Jesus.
But then we read on: “If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life maimed than to have two hands and to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire.”
“If your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life lame than to have two feet and be thrown into hell.”
Umm, Jesus? If you’re trying to tell us something here…
“And if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and to be thrown into hell, where their worm never dies, and the fire is never quenched.”
OK, now that’s just disturbing! Certainly not the stuff of joyful worship on a beautiful, albeit rainy, fall Sunday in New Hampshire! I mean, given all of Jesus’ talk in Mark’s gospel over the past couple of weeks about welcoming children, and how being the greatest of all means being servant of all, you’d have thought that we might have gotten something a little more positive today, or at least an encouraging word or two! But there you are: Jesus’ very own words, his “good news” directed not only to his disciples back then, but also to you and me right now “for the living of these days.”
And like it or not, we have to confront it; though I don’t know about you, friends, but my first question is, “Really? Seriously?”
What is Jesus getting at here? Is he actually serious about this?
And the answer is, yes; Jesus is very serious …though maybe not in the way we’re thinking.
First of all, understand that Jesus spoke these words in the context of yet another impulsive, rush-to-judgment moment on the part of the disciples: this time, they’d seen an unknown, presumably freelance exorcist “casting out demons” in Jesus’ name, which immediately sent them running back to Jesus to complain that he was out there engaging in unauthorized, “rogue” activity, and it needed to stop! But Jesus shoots this down immediately, saying, “Don’t stop him; no one can use my name to do something good and powerful, and in the next breath cut me down.” “Whoever is not against us is for us;” even the one who does something as simple as giving you a cup of cold water is an ally! At this point, it all seems pretty simple, understandable, cut and dry.
But then Jesus takes this sharp left turn that I’m absolutely sure the disciples weren’t expecting any more than we were! Listen to how The Message translates this: “On the other hand,” Jesus says, “if you give one of these simple, childlike believers a hard time, bullying or taking advantage of their simple trust, you’ll soon wish you hadn’t.” And off he goes from there – the disciples no doubt wishing they hadn’t even said a word about any of it in the first place!
Now, I don’t think that Jesus was advocating the literal amputation of hands and feet, nor the gouging out of eyes – though there were ancient religions that did (and in some extreme cases, still do) make that the punishment for a variety of transgressions – most biblical scholars in fact believe that there’s a lot of hyperbole here. In other words, by using some really harsh words (which, by the way, were just as offensive to them as they are to us), Jesus wanted to shake them up; he wanted his disciples quite literally to sit down, be quiet for once, and really pay attention!
You see, Jesus was not speaking here of the necessity for harsh, retributive justice; but he was talking about the great importance of our “staying the course” where our faith and our commitment to doing the work of God’s kingdom is concerned. In other words, the issue should never have been that there was this man casting out demons using Jesus’ name; the issue should have been, and should always be, the great importance of Jesus message; a message so important, so crucial that every distraction, every obstacle that keeps that message from being shared must be avoided – and that includes creating stumbling blocks for others who are hearing, receiving and sharing that same message.
Listen again to how The Message puts this: “If your hand and your foot gets in God’s way, chop it off and throw it away …if your eye distracts you from God, pull it out and throw it away.” That, while still pretty harsh, says something a bit different, doesn’t it? If it “gets in God’s way” …that says nothing should be allowed to lead us away from God and the work we do to advance God’s kingdom! Our number one concern needs to be that relationship and that commitment – because the stakes are just that high! Craig Evans, New Testament Professor at Acadia Divinity College in Nova Scotia, Canada, sums it all up when he writes that the disciples’ “love for God and loyalty to Jesus should be so strong …that their love for others should be like [others’] hatred by comparison.” And while severed arms and lost eyes might not literally be part of that equation, it still holds true that we cannot let anything – or do anything that gets in the way of what this divine mandate; anything that would cause us – or others – to stumble in the effort.
It’s interesting to note that the Greek word that’s used here for “stumbling block” is skandalon, which is where we get our word, scandal. The Greeks understood skandalon as a large stone, or a cord stretched across a pathway; something that might cause one to trip and fall to his or her death. But in this instance skandalon represents anything that would pull us away from our walk with God, and others along with us – and that could be, as with the disciples today, a case of wrong assumptions and misguided priorities; or, for that matter, it could be the kind of shopworn ideas, attitudes and prejudices that we’ve hung on to for far too long; the self-centered desires that have not only blinded us to the needs of others, but also to an awareness of what we really need; the choices we make in this life that inevitably take us in a bad direction. These are the things that can make us stumble, and if that’s the case, says Jesus, then we need to get rid of it …now.
If that seems an extreme response, well, you’re right. But as someone once observed, the most foolish thing in the world is trying to leap across a deep ditch in two jumps!
The church I used to serve up in Hallowell, Maine, Old South Congregational, is built of granite cut from the stone quarries right there in Hallowell over 125 years ago – with huge, 1½ story stained-glass windows on both the southern and eastern sides of the building. Back in the day there was this creeping ivy vine that grew up along the granite walls up around those windows almost up to the Maine slate shingles on the roof – it was, and is, just beautiful. But as we set to the task of restoring that church building while I was there, we discovered that the ivy vine had wound and entangled itself into the wooden panes of the windows, so much so that much of the wood had begun to rot. To save the wood, and thus preserve the beauty and the integrity of the windows, we were forced to cut back and remove the ivy completely. It wasn’t an easy thing to do; and as I recall, there were a few in the congregation who were unhappy with the decision because it changed something of its beauty (!), but this is what it took to keep the building strong.
Think of that as a parable of sorts, and you’ve got an example of the way that life can often become for those who seek to walk with God. So many decisions that have to be made, so many varied choices that get mingled with temptations of every shape and size – and frankly, most often, the questions we ask come down to what’s good for us at that moment or in that particular situation. And mostly, that works out for us; but we’re being honest, we also have to confess that so often the things that seem good for us – money, status, personal pride and, yes, our own personal pleasure – are the same things that end up entangling and suffocating us, causing us to stumble in our pursuit of what’s truly important.
The Christian life runs diametrically opposed to those kinds of choices; at the end of the day, to follow Jesus means to walk a different path. It was the great Jewish teacher Hillel who said, “Love God, and love your neighbor. The rest is commentary.” Well, that’s the pilgrimage on which we as disciples of Jesus Christ seek to set our feet. And we will stumble – there’s no question about that, because you and I, we’re built to stumble (some of us more prominently than others, and I speak from experience here!). But the difference in our walk is that when we stumble, we remove that which has made us stumble, if I might quote from the opening hymn one more time, “lest we miss thy kingdom’s goal.” What’s that wonderful verse in Hebrews? “Let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us.” (12:1) There can be nothing allowed to hinder our progress toward the goal, that of God’s own kingdom dwelling within us and coming to fruition in the world.
You know, lest we think that Jesus sort of left his disciples and us “hanging,” we need to remember that Jesus finished this particular teaching with a hearty reminder of our continued need to “be salty” – “Salt is good; but if salt has lost its saltiness, how can you season it? Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.” Not only a great reminder that we can never let anything in life cover up the flavor that is distinctly our own as followers of Christ, but also, just as salt, by its very nature, preserves, as live the restored, renewed, and transformed life of a Christian, we also are the preservers of Christ’s abundant peace and his unending love.
And that, dear friends, is something to celebrate – in worship and out there in the midst of everyday life – every time we give a cup of water in his name.
So let’s continue on the walk – bearing Christ’s name with every new step, and letting our intense saltiness prevail in all things.
Thanks be to God!
Amen, and AMEN!
c. 2012 Rev. Michael W. Lowry